In virtually no other time of the year do we have as many traditions and customs as we do during the time of Advent and Christmas.
This is true also for the church. For this time of the year, especially, the church has many traditions and customs: The Divine Services for example, with their very distinct character including traditional music and hymns. Many churches have an Advent wreath in the front. Most churches will have a Christmas tree, whose bright candles on Christmas Eve don’t only brighten the faces of children but of many adults too.
Sometimes the Church is accused of the fact that many of our traditions and customs are man-made, that is, that they are not biblical and as such should have no place in our churches. The Advent wreath is cited as an example, as well as the tradition of having a Christmas tree in church. These customs, it is said, are quite possibly of heathen origin and only entered the church sometime in its (late) history.
We would answer by noting that we don’t hold to any Advent or Christmas traditions or customs of the Church because of the traditions themselves; it is not for the traditions’ sake that we hold to them; it is also not because they somehow save us. Rather, we value our traditions and customs because they are rooted in the Holy Scriptures and point us to Jesus Christ, our Saviour.
As such the Advent wreath is a symbol of the victory that Jesus Christ has won for the Church – the victory over sin, the devil and death. Its green leaves reflect the colour of life and Christian hope; its burning candles are a sign of the light of God that shines into our darkness with Jesus Christ. The Christmas tree symbolises the Tree of Life Jesus Christ, who has freed us from the bondage of Adam’s sin. The traditions and customs serve the Gospel. For this reason, it would be harmful to change them for the sake of change – just as it would be harmful to hold to a certain tradition simply for the sake of the tradition.
Seen in this light, our many treasured traditions and customs during the time of Advent and Christmas can help us attune to the true joy of Christmas. The joy that flows out of the Christmas Gospel, as St John records it in a nutshell: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 ESV)
Good Christian men, with joy draw near,
For now God’s Son will soon appear;
Our Brother He has deigned to be,
Rejoice, your dear Lord Christ is He.
Pastor Michael Ahlers, Kirchdorf